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Category Archive for 'Issue 27'

We are pleased to present our first double-feature for your reading pleasure. We received an amazing amount of submissions for this issue. We are so happy our journal continues to resonate with women of diverse backgrounds. This issue highlights damselfly press’s mission: the celebration of talented emerging women writers whose work thoughtfully examines their unique, yet universal, experience.

We are also delighted to announce the publication of No Matter the Wreckage (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) by Sarah Kay, whose poem “Witness” first appeared in the ninth issue of damselfly press. For more information, please visit kaysarahsera.com

For our themed twenty-eighth issue, available July15th, 2014, we would like to commemorate the men in our lives from our husbands, partners, brothers, to fathers, sons, and friends. If you’d like to submit, please first visit our guidelines section and send us your submission by June 15th, 2014.


Listen to the Poem

For Another

You’ll find the land doesn’t care
and that is good. You’ll appreciate
the indifference, eventually,
when in town, they will ask
about your shoes, your hair,
why you were brought here:
a question with no answer
or too long—
the sea has waves.

But, the land never asks,
never makes sure you’re fed
and does not scold
if you pick apples or oranges.
It will not clothe, never
hesitate to make cotton,
to grow wood and this
you will appreciate,
later, when the shopkeepers
reject you, when only
the rich, can build houses.

– Valerie Westmark graduated from Samford University with a Bachelor’s in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. She has been published in Samford University’s Sojourn and Wide Angle, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Wayfarer and Sleet Magazine. She also was awarded the Top Literary Rating for the Fall 2010 issue of Sojourn. She currently resides in Pensacola, FL.

On Hands

The rows aren’t endless
but the picking is, and that is what I like,
each berry growing bright in the fingers
of my hand, red before I put it
in the bucket. The sun heats
and sweat builds on my shoulders
while the plants seem to shiver in the hazy air,
and each leaf trembles when I touch it.
As the first hour ends, my back
begins to ache, and my hands balance me
more often on the ground, between
berries, while I take my time.
And I hear you before I see you,
to surprise me with your lips
on my salty neck, interrupting my work,
and I drop the ripe berries that are
in my hands to kiss you back.
But you aren’t here.
Your presence at the row edge is just
the sparkling hot sun, which shifts the air.
So my hands don’t empty, then, for you.

– Gigi Marks lives in Ithaca, New York. Her poetry has appeared in many publications, including American Poets Against the War, The Atlanta Review, Best American Poetry, Green Mountains Review, Lilith, North American Poetry Review, Northwest Review, Poetry, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review. She has published the poetry chapbooks What We Need (Shortline Editions) and Shelter (Autumn House Press, 2011). Her poetry collection, Close By, was published by Silverfish Review Press (Spring 2012).

Death Makes Us Forgetful

One last leaf pile on the canvas tarp
ready to be thrown downhill below the yard
when, between broad silver trunks, tall,

elegant, in his soft brown suit, holding
a fedora at his heart like a foreign prayer book,
a man inquired if we were owners of small brown dog

and pointed to the main road, where, following him,
I found her lying amid humid leaves, a wet throw rug,
unconscious but in pain.

He had pulled his Ford off to the side, and stood
beside it now, legs wide, while her body shuddered
and stopped. I lifted her then, unkempt shepherd.

I say death took her, as if she went somewhere,
but I don’t know where. I only see the man.

– Victoria Korth is a poet and psychiatrist living in upstate New York. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Brockport. Her thesis, Tender Warnings: Narrative Tension in Lyric Poetry, explores the relationship between narrative elements in her own life, biography revealed to her through her work as a physician, and the lyric impulse. Recent poems have appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Worcester Review, Passager, Barrow Street, 2013 Longlist Anthology: Montreal International Poetry Prize, and elsewhere.

Designing Hats

In the reflection of the curved glass
a wide angle view of the living room:

window, lamp, mirror—it’s way too early to tell
what I know about the day. I wish I could

design a hat for every mistake I’ve made.
It occurs to me that I’d be making hats

for a long time not to mention seeing
my hats on others. Oh look

at that one—it must have cost a fortune.
And that one over there—the brown feathers

dragging on the ground. One is made of bark,
another, mud. I lay down naked

in the mud waiting for my thoughts
to decompose, soon I am lost

in the unconscious expanse of tiny ideas.
I can tell you one thing, my next hat will

be made of spider webbing, pliant, elastic,
and able to heal itself, like skin. Imagine

your skin as a pelt, stretched out as a rug
or pinned to a wall like a trophy, the thickest

parts your palms and soles, the thinnest
your eyelids. Without it

you wouldn’t know where you end
and the rest of the world begins.

– Jean A. Kingsley was born in Omaha, Nebraska, has lived in Arizona, Alaska, and Virginia, and now resides in Rochester, New York. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tar River Poetry, River Oak Review, American Literary Review, Excursus Literary Arts Journal, Quarterly West, Eclipse, and Poetry Lore, among others. She recently won a first book award for Traceries from ABZ Press, judged by C. D. Wright.

Listen to the Poem

Remodeling Dream

The poems you did not
could not, catch at night,
when your child needs to sleep
curled in your armpit,
scamper like lost hamsters
squeeze into the space between
the drywall and the world
where only the dog
can hear their scratching,
the high-pitched squeak
of trapped disappointment.

– Sandra L. Faulkner’s poetry appears in places like Women & Language, Storm Cellar, Literary Mama, and Sugar House Review. She authored two chapbooks, Hello Kitty Goes to College (dancing girl press) and K4, M1: Knit Four, Make One (forthcoming Kattywompus). She lives in NW Ohio with her partner, their warrior girl, and a rescue mutt.

Sometimes sleep is a sleek greyhound

speeding along the horizon of night.
Or a red-tailed hawk arcing
toward the sky.

If I hear my name I will wake.

It might be the who of the owl
or a murmur of wind through ragged
branches of elms.

When the moon drifts to the far fingers
of the lake, perhaps I will hear my daughter
calling out in the old way, Mom?

Half question, half plea.

If the owl comes again

After John Haines

I will perch on the limb beside her
as we look down at the stillness,
our swiveling eyes growing keener
with each twitch of grass, rattle of leaf.
And as the dawn slowly brightens to day
she will fly back into the dark woods,
but I will linger, memorizing each shingle
and nail, the uneven plank on the porch,
the cat in the window, myself
in the chair by the bed,
gazing out at the trees.

Listen to the Poem

Lemon Bread

We are straddling the gap
between winter and spring.
Wind through bare branches,
a sky more gray than blue.

Perhaps deliciously happy
is not in my makeup,
the way I opt for savory over sweet,
shun sugar for spice.

Still, there are moments, like now,
watching you in the kitchen
as you squeeze the plump lemons
over the hot, fragrant loaf.

The sun has come out
on the blossoming dogwoods,
the first new leaves
on the hydrangea’s stiff stalks.

– Judith Waller Carroll is the author of the chapbook, Walking in Early September (Finishing Line Press 2012). Her work appears in such journals as Apple Valley Review, Heron Tree, Naugatuck River Review, and Shot Glass Journal, as well as several anthologies, and has been nominated for Best of the Net.


The Foxes

Tree.  Wood.  Thursday.


So many brushstrokes to learn.  So many words to teach.

So many images to forget.

Gazing down through the clouds, her eyes peer into the barren swamps of Siberia.  Somewhere in the rows behind her, a baby cries. Finally the plane swoops lower down, toward the maple trees, the autumnal colours of December in Japan.

Later, in the tall hotel where caged birds sing in the jasmine-scented lobby, she inspects the soft blue cotton kimono spread out on the coverlet.  She ties the sash tightly around her waist.  Then she tears into the plastic package to release white terrycloth slippers.  They fit snugly across her insteps as she paces around the tiny, perfect room.

Finally she huddles in the armchair, sipping green tea and leafing through her kanji dictionary.  She ignores the patient ghosts that haunt the dusty corners of her mind.  Only later, when she is asleep, do they moan in her ears.

In the night, she wakes, as if summoned by an invisible baby’s cry, wailing in pain like that infant on the plane.

She rises in the dark and opens the blinds.  Far below dark figures huddle on the platforms, silhouetted against the white-gold station light.  Tomorrow she will take the famous bullet train out of that station, to the most ancient city of Japan. Far below her window, blue fairy lights sparkle in bare-branched cherry trees.  Christmas in Japan.

Her hosts from the Language School drive her up into the hills, to a hotel, on the mountainside, which offers another fresh kimono, another pair of slippers to warm her feet.  Mozart plays the clarinet whenever she flushes the loo.

Down a twisting corridor, she discovers a secret moss garden enclosed in glass.  Outside, on the mountain, she climbs up a steep and winding path, hearing only the sounds of her Ugg boots crunching on the pine needles and birds’ wings fluttering in the bushes.

I want to begin work as soon as I can, she tells her hosts.  I need to find a flat or at least a room of my own.

They shake their heads and smile.  There will be time enough to meet her students, to settle in.  They will help her.  But first she must pay homage to Kyoto—to the temples and the shrines. They have arranged for a car and a driver. What would she like to see?

A temple, she replies.

This time last year, he and she moved closer together than was really wise, leaning up against the back wall of the auditorium.  The two of them had always been friends.  They were the young teachers, the ones the children and the parents liked,.   That evening they stood shoulder to shoulder, listening to four-year-olds wearing dressing gowns and tea towels  singing Away in the Manger in tuneless soprano wailing.

You’re not religious, are you, she’d whispered to him in the dark.

I sometimes think I might be a Buddhist, he’d whispered back.

The last time she saw him, he was not whispering but shouting. He’d be really angry if he knew she was at a temple in Kyoto, while back in Camberwell he was once again dusting off the shepherd’s crooks for this year’s Nativity.

Next morning, she discards her shoes and clambers up flight after flight of slippery wooden steps, to gaze upon the golden Buddha.

Outside, in thin sunshine in the grey-green garden, the quiet wraps around her like a silken obi.  She sits on a wooden bench beneath a willow tree, breathing in the leafy silence in the wind.  Small birds flutter down and peck at the dirt beneath the gravel path.

Back in Camberwell, she could not have envisioned this state of grace, this perfect peace.  This is the perfect place to learn to read Japan.  Later, when she goes back to the hotel, she will take out her ink, practice her brushstrokes in the embroidered sketchpad she bought at that art shop by the lake.

She looks out at the swaying bamboo in the gravel garden.  Tree.  Wood.  It’s the first Thursday of a new life.

But she can’t yet escape back to the silence of her hotel room.  She must see more sights.  The car and driver have been booked for the entire morning.  What does she wish to do next?

I’d like to see a shrine, she says, hoping this will suffice to show her gratitude, her respect not just for the Buddha but also for the older Shinto gods.

The driver says he wants to take us to his very favourite shrine, her host whispers.  I myself have never been there.

In the car park they push past milling pilgrims.  All is blazing orange.  The driver follows them through the crowd.  She walks faster, out of reach of his acrid cigarette smoke.  Children chase each other across the gravel courtyard.

This shrine seems rather jolly, she observes to her host.  That temple was so beautiful but this is much livelier, isn’t it?

We have Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals, her host replies.

They climb past the temple gates, up a steep stony path enclosed within a canopy of rusting orange arches.  All along the path, stone foxes stand guard.  Their laughing faces stare at the pilgrims.  The foxes’ glass eyes sparkle.  They wear jaunty red bandannas tied around their necks.

Her sombre host presses his lips together.  He clasps his hands behind his back.  The fox god knows death as well as life, he murmurs.  The mothers who come to the shrine give the cloths to the foxes, to send a message to their babies who were born dead.

There were foxes in the allotments behind her London garden, shrieking in the night, as the clots of blood fell on the bathroom floor.  But London foxes shrink back from death.  They never offered to take a message to her half-born baby.

They climb upwards, through the endless tube of orange metal arches. Dark silence gathers underneath the shadow of the trees.

She looks back down the tunnel.  They are alone.  None of the other pilgrims have climbed so far up the hill.

At a breach in the parade of arches, the driver steps off the path.  He lights another cigarette.  I take my break, now, he says.  You go on.  Go up the path and see the lake.  People always go see the lake.

Do you want to go on? Her host looks doubtful.

She yearns for her hotel room, her clean kimono, her soft calligraphy brushes.  But this is her new life, in polite Japan.

Oh, certainly, I’d like to see the lake.

They duck their heads and enter the next segment of the rusting orange tunnel.  Outside the cage of arches, birds complain in the darkening woods.  The air smells of still green water.

They stumble out from the last of the arches into a field of gravestones.  An army of stone foxes leer at them.  The fox soldiers’ red bandannas hang limp in the windless air.  Feral cats twine their way through the gravestones, crying as urgently as the allotment foxes did, back in London.

The taxi driver emerges from the orange tunnel.   This is the place people come to see he says.  This is where the dead babies gather, in the dark, when only the cats and the stone foxes are here to see them.

Ruby-red maple leaves drift down, skating gently across the still surface of the lake.  The sun slides behind the clouds.  The cats slink back into the shadow of the gravestones.

Perhaps it’s time to head back to the car, says her host, looking at his watch.

But she steps forward, away from the men, toward the leaf-drowned lake.  Just under the silence, she hears multitudes of frightened babies, calling out to their lost mothers.

Please do take care, her host calls down to her.

She pays no attention.  She strains her ears, listening for the weary cry of one ill formed English baby, lost in the murmurings in Japanese.

Her feet sink down, through the leaf cover, into the mud.

Tree.  Wood.  Thursday.  Water.


– Frances Hay is an American woman who has lived in Britain for nearly 30 years.  She is a psychologist who has written academic papers and books.  Her short stories have been published online in Flash Flood, Café Aphra Flash Fiction Fridays and the Mulfran Press Story of the Month series.


The Girl Version

Fourteen single women from a half-dozen countries lived together in Kathmandu. We were volunteers with an organization that distributed literature in remote areas, and we trekked in pairs and trios for weeks at a time in the Himalayas. We added a few new members every six months. This time we added three Americans.

I found them on my living room couch when I came home one evening, all lined up and waiting expectantly.

“We just finished the trekking orientation with Timo,” one of them offered in explanation.


I had sat through the same trekking orientation. The principles were simple: always carry boots and two litres of water; don’t pack more than you can hold with your arm extended straight out to the side; find a place to sleep before dark.

“And he said to ask you for the girl version.”

The Girl Version was a secret, corporate, need-to-know code. A code of ethics. Standard operating procedures. A survival guide to an activity that we always survived, but sometimes just barely. Something we laughed about later, sometimes much later, over mugs of tea and pans of brownies. The Girl Version was sacred, confidential, classified.

I sat across from the three newbies, their eyes wide with interest in what nuggets of wisdom I might dispense from my accumulated trekking lore. And I had nuggets. After six treks of my own and hundreds of stories from friends, I felt qualified to speak for the group, the International Society of Foreign Trekking Women.

“The Girl Version of trekking orientation,” I began, “is that Caucasian skin glows in the dark, especially areas of skin that we do not typically expose to sunlight. The Girl Version is remembering that Nepal may appear to be wild and undomesticated, but it is also severely overpopulated, and no matter how many days’ walk we are from a road, if we yell, someone will answer. That someone is already watching us.”

There was much more. The Girl Version is about more than privacy, which is a privilege forfeited by those of us who choose to trek in the most rugged mountains in the world. The Girl Version is a new set of norms. A surrender of rights. An acceptance of a standard of living that no one in the world abides by except white women travelling on foot in densely populated third world countries.

My first attempt to wash was at a spring under the direct observation of a water buffalo shepherd. I thought I was very astute to have brought a lungi, a colourful sheet to wrap around me before I removed my clothing. Undressing and bathing were easily done. Redressing my damp skin in clothing made from non-stretch fabric proved far more challenging. I became completely entrapped in my tunic, with one arm extended vertically through the sleeve. The other hand clutched the soaked lungi in which the rest of me was wrapped. The situation proved so dire that I had to be rescued and dressed by a more experienced member of the International Society.

Bathing modestly in public requires cunning, strategy, and self-awareness. When we do not have a lungi, we roll our pant legs up to, but not above, our knees, and scrunch our shirt sleeves up towards our shoulders. We bend double to immerse our hair under water taps or ladle stream water from empty bottles.

Our clothes we knead on rocks and walkways, chafing dirt and soapsuds from the fabric. Sometimes we wade into the river and wash our clothes and our bodies at once, smearing ourselves with one all-purpose bar of soap and squeezing black shampoo from single-use packets like a condiment. As we learn we become more flexible, more adept, and more clean.

We change clothes beneath inquiring gazes and open skies. We learn to always wear shawls as the Nepali women do. We learn to wrap and secure the shawls beneath our shirts so both hands are free to remove our tunics and pull on our clean clothes. We learn to drape the shawls in fashionable and practical ways so the ends do not catch or drag. We learn to gather the ends in our hands to lift cooking pots from open fires, or if our shawls are too thin, we gather leaves from nearby scrub and fold them into organic hot pads.

The Girl Version is walking in places where a single misstep means certain death. We wade barefoot through streams and balance on logs over rapids and trundle in hand-powered cable cars over flood-stage rivers. We climb many hundreds of metres on blistered feet and descend as many hundreds of metres on throbbing knees. We cross landslides that have torn away the mountains. We stop for rest and stare over precipices and into canyons and up at the thinning sky. We spot beehives in the shadows of the cliffs and water buffalo rummaging in narrow pastures. We listen to rumours of tigers and rebels and kidnappers. We pick leeches from our skin with our fingers, or we sprinkle them with salt and watch their skin melt and our blood spill out of their writhing bodies. We are cruel. We are brave. Sometimes we are overcome.

Sometimes we cower in our sleeping bags late into the night, pinching the openings shut over our heads with trembling hands, feeling rodent footsteps on our bodies. Often we refuse to look up, knowing the ceiling is scabbed over with spiders, and that we can’t kill them all, and if we do there will be more insects, so we bury our faces in our arms and dream of bubble baths and mosquito netting.

Sometimes we don’t sleep for days, not really, and we begin to lose our concentration, our language skills, and our nerve. We eat nothing but rice and lentils for weeks and our digestive systems begin to collapse on themselves. Our hands shake from lack of blood sugar. Our muscles quiver from lack of protein. Our immune systems no longer heal scratches and bites. We begin to believe that we can walk no farther. That we can’t even lift our backpacks from where they have fallen by the side of the road. We run out of water, and when we find water, we run out of patience for the purifying iodine, but we convince each other to wait, because we know about giardia and typhoid and cholera.

The Girl Version is knowing that feminism is foolishness in these mountains. We know that girls can’t do anything boys can do, and certainly not better. We don’t have the muscle mass to carry as much up steep hills or over far distances. Some of us can trek harder than some of the boys, but collectively we are weaker, so we become more strategic. We learn to pack lighter, and to catch rides on Jeeps and tractors and pack mule trains.

We trade bulky hairbrushes for plastic combs. We risk bedbugs in village blankets and carry sleeping bag liners instead of the warmer, heavier version. We give up pyjamas. We turn our socks inside out and pretend that they are clean. But we still carry candy, and lip balm, and sometimes our extra set of clothes is pink. We carry cloth headbands to cover our greasy hair because we may be trekkers, but we are still girl trekkers.

The Girl Version is getting credit for showing up. Sometimes we are the first foreigners ever seen in a village, and while we frighten the children, we impress the adults. They assume, always, that it is our first time outside of Kathmandu, and when we begin to name the districts we have trekked, their esteem grows. The women are sympathetic. The men are protective.

“It is not safe for women to travel alone in these hills,” they warn, “not when there are so many dangers.”

“There are kidnappers,” they tell us, “and they will sell you to brothels in India.”

“There are snakes,” they say, “you should not go off the trails. You will stay here for the rest of your time.”

Arguing is useless. They will not listen to women, especially not foreign women, and we do not have the words to argue their logic. They will not allow us to travel alone. They do not respect our plans. They consider us reckless and foolish and weak. We cannot leave unless they show us the trail. And so we do not argue.

But we do not stay. We wait, and we listen to their plans, and we sigh and nod, and we consider their warnings, and we sit by the fire and drink tea and ask about their crops and their children. When the moment is right, and the light is gone, and they are finished speaking, we  thank them for their hospitality and their advice, and we inform them that we are leaving in the morning, at first light.

We do leave, but not at first light. Not until they have killed a chicken and their wives have cooked it along with rice and lentils and we leave the village with bloated stomachs in the heat of the day and already our plans and resolve are wilting. But the men have given in, and they show us the trail. Occassionally they come with us to carry our backpacks because they know the hills are too steep.

We are grateful for the help, since the rice has turned to gravel in our stomachs, so we hand over our backpacks only to watch them disappear up the trail on the shoulders of the men who don’t realize that we walk slowly, not because of the weight of our packs, but because of the thinness of the air. So we straggle behind them, trying to keep our water bottles in sight as they bound ahead over the boulders. The gravel in our stomachs grinds to a heavy paste and our blood sugar crashes and our lungs are being impaled with a thousand burning spikes and we’ve lost sight of our bags completely.

The men wait for us at the top of the mountain, and we feel guilty for taking them from their fields and their families, so we do not stop to rest on the way. We keep climbing as fast as we can, but now there are two thousand burning spikes in our lungs and our hands begin to shake and our knees tremble. We wish that we had stayed in the village. We wonder if they are being helpful or punitive, and we wish they would just leave us gasping on the side of the trail, but they are too considerate for that. They shame us along to our destination village.

When we arrive, we collapse in a scrap of shade and hug our backpacks and gulp water, even though we know it will add to the pain in our stomachs. We are unable to stand or to speak. Our chaperones introduce us to the patriarchs of this next village and explain that we are foreign women traveling alone. They say abrupt goodbyes and return to their homes, passing on the burden of caring for the helpless foreigners.

“It is not safe for women to travel alone in these hills,” our new chaperones warn, “not when there are so many dangers.”

“There are kidnappers,” they tell us, “and they will sell you to brothels in India.”

“There are snakes,” they say, “you should not go off the trails. You will stay here for the rest of your time.”

And we do not argue.

But we do not stay.

The Girl Version is about resilience, not strength. About how fast you can recover, not how much you can survive. It is silent evenings beneath a masterpiece of stars, staring up at heavens that dwarf even these mountains, and the places we came from, and the distance in between. We stare, and we feel small, and we know that our tiredness and our discomfort are also small. In these moments the mountains are not so high, and the rivers are not so cold. We know that what we packed in our thirty, thirty-five, forty litre backpacks is all that we need in the world, for days of climbing and nights of wonder, and it makes us feel safe to need so little and to marvel so much.

When we break off our stargazing we return to the village fires to warm our hands and drink tea. When we are silent in the dimness the villagers sometimes forget that we are here, or that we are foreign. We squat with our feet flat on the ground in rubber sandals and stretch our walking muscles in preparation for another day.

In the mornings we crawl from our sleeping bags to the smells of tea and smoke and poverty. Our muscles have contracted in the night and we crouch from our room and perch like reptiles on flat stones beside the road to soak in the weak morning sun. We are frozen like pale gargoyles until the warmth frees us to stand and lace our boots and heft our packs and walk again.

– Brenda Sallee specializes in contrast. She grew up in Haiti and Russia and enjoys both sappy girl movies and trekking in the Himalayas. She is a graduate of the University of Central Florida’s MFA program, where she worked as an editorial assistant at The Florida Review. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida.


Listen to an Excerpt

A Good Mom

“You have a three-month uterus,” my gynecologist tells me. He raises his head above my draped knees, above the cold stirrups holding my cold feet. Then he pats my knees and smiles, as though what he has said has explained everything. The pain. The bleeding that lasts for weeks. The anemia.

“I have what?”

“Because of the number and size of fibroid tumors in your uterus,” the doctor explains, “it is the size and distension equivalent to a woman three months into a normal pregnancy. We should talk about removing the uterus,” he says, as if it’s already not a part of me.

The first weeks home after surgery I lie in bed — not even my own bed, but the thin mattress of our sofa bed — and am acutely aware of the taut, jagged scar across my belly, a scar the length of my forearm.  It hurts to move and so I just lie very still, imagining the new empty space beneath the scar. I sink into the bed, wish for sleep, that I might never wake up, that I might simply, and uneventfully, die.

I am married to my second husband.  His given name is Richard, but he has chosen, quaintly, to go by “Dick.”  When I am home from the hospital, Dick ignores me, sitting in the next room endlessly reading, drinking glass after glass of wine.  Sometimes, he steps into the living room and dutifully asks if I want anything, asks how I am.  Usually I say “I’m fine.” There’s not much point in saying anything else.  Some men know how to be kind. Some do not. When you know the difference, you know where you are.

One night, when he comes in and asks how I am, I try to sit up, rolling first onto my side as I have been instructed to do these first few weeks. Everything hurts.

“Everything hurts,” I say.

Dick stands by the sofa bed, holding his book, a finger stuck between the pages, keeping his place.

“It’s bound to,” he says.

I wrestle myself to a sitting position. The effort is enormous, painful, exhausting.  I put my head against the back of the couch. And then, I can’t help myself, I start to cry.

“I feel awful,” I say. “I feel as though I’ve been gutted, as though I’ve become some horrible thing.”  I know I am getting dramatic, weeping for the loss of my uterus, for me as a woman, for everything that I can’t do anymore, ever again. And of course, that makes everything hurt even more.  I cry even harder.

My state of mind is like that of a little kid who cries because of a bad dream, or a fright, and then begins to scare herself because she is crying, and then just cries harder, and harder, until she’s soaked with tears and snot, is hiccupping and hyperventilating. All you can do at that moment is hold her. You can’t fix anything. You just tell her you love her.

That night, as I sit there weeping, lamenting the loss of everything, Dick stands there watching. We have been married for nearly three years.  He and I are twenty-five years apart.  I was his brilliant student. His photography class brought us together.  That was then.  This is now.  I suppose we both imagined something different.  Now, as though he is chastising a difficult child, he shouts at me, words that even years in the future I will still be able to hear: “I can’t get your uterus back!”

He storms into his darkroom, and slams shut the door.

It is January.  I walk to the mailbox at the end of our very long driveway, and then back. In a week, I will walk to the end of our road, a distance maybe three times further.  In February I walk out a mile and then back.  By March I walk a five-mile loop along the country roads.I walk alone.  The land in rural Indiana in winter is bleak, empty.  There isn’t much snow. The fields are wide stretches of brown earth stubbled with short bleached stalks, remnants of corn that in summer stood seven and eight feet high, green and glorious.  The skies are overcast. The wind is harsh, unimpeded.

My body heals but my soul lags behind.  I am, quite simply, sad. There is no one to talk to. A woman who calls herself my best friend finds every excuse in the world not to visit. The support groups I find, rudimentary listservs, only let me know that everyone else who has had a hysterectomy before the age of, say, forty, is just as sad as I am.

I think about a support group with real people, somewhere I can drive to.  I can only imagine a circle of women just like me: thin, scarred, discussing in dark bloody detail the miseries before, during, and after surgery. The thought of that just makes me sadder. I consider therapy, but what is there to talk about?  I was sick, the surgery was the cure, that is it. Never mind that there is the misery of the marriage to deconstruct.  I don’t have the energy to take on that project.

I consider, briefly, mood-altering drugs — Prozac, morphine, pot, good old-fashioned liquor — but I don’t want to blur anything.  If my life is a little hell, at least I want to see it clearly and remember it.

One day, I talk to my mother on the phone, sorry for myself, talking in circles. She listens, and then her crisp Yankee voice stops me.

“You know what you need to do,” she says.


“Listen,” she says, ignoring the dullness of my voice, the self-pity, the loneliness. “What you need to do is this: get out of the house and go help someone else.”

“Like who?” I’m on the verge of whining. Even I don’t want to be around me.

“Well,” she says.  “I’m sure you can figure that out.”

I don’t remember how I choose it, maybe an advertisement in the local newspaper, maybe something on the radio. In March of 1995, I sign up to be a middle-school mentor.  The standards are minimal: pass a background check, listen to a cheerful woman explain the rules: commit to lunch once a week with your “mentee,” wear your mentor badge at all times, enforce the rules of the school. You get a t-shirt and a profile of the sixth-grader chosen for you.

My sixth-grader is a girl named Aimee.  She is, the profile notes, an “at-risk” child. She lives with her grandparents; her parents are divorced — the father has moved away, the mother is a recovering drug addict.  There is no picture of Aimee in the folder.  I imagine her: short, fat, a sullen child who probably likes a lot of TV, and won’t like me or this artificial mentor relationship or the stupid badge I have to wear which will tell everyone what they’ve always suspected: she is just another charity case.

A week after the orientation I meet the real kid. We are introduced in the hallway in front of the principal’s office.  Aimee is not fat. She wears a simple purple sweater and new blue jeans.  She has a beautiful mane of blond hair, wide blue eyes, and perfectly dimpled cheeks. She stares at me with the unmediated frankness of a child. I have no idea what she is thinking.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi,” she says back.

We pose while someone takes our picture, the two of us side by side, Aimee a full foot shorter than I, both of us dutifully smiling for the camera.

Every Wednesday, I meet eleven-year-old Aimee for lunch.  I ask her how school is going, what she likes to do, what she wants to be when she grows up.  I have no idea how to talk with an eleven-year-old.  Aimee usually shrugs off my questions. School is fine. She doesn’t know what she likes — maybe TV, sometimes volleyball, maybe the mall. She hasn’t thought about what she wants. But there is this boy she likes. And she points, covertly, her finger low on the lunch table like a compass needle, directing my attention to a scrawny kid one table over, due North.

I look, nod, try to sound wise.

“There is more to life than boys,” I say.

Aimee gazes at me, pityingly.  What do I know?

What I know is that week after week I keep coming back.  We start our weekly lunches in March, enduring the racket of the school cafeteria.  I eat whatever the cafeteria serves. Gooey cheese sandwiches. Chocolate milk. Piles of cardboardy chips with salsa that tastes exactly like ketchup.  Brownies the size of a brick. Lasagna so dense it could be a doorstop.

By April, I start bringing my own lunch. So does Aimee.  The weather warms up and we eat outdoors on the steps of the school away from the racket and hum of the school cafeteria.

Sitting on those steps, Aimee and I talk about ordinary things — her dogs and mine, the cats we know, the movies, music, what is on television.  Sometimes we talk about Important Things. Birth control.  College. Drugs and sex and alcohol.  Sometimes Aimee tells me about her life. About her mother, mostly.  The drugs. Heroin had been her mother’s drug of choice.

“She’s on methadone, now,” Aimee notes flatly.

Aimee tells me about the people who dealt the drugs. The boy who sold the drugs who married her mother.  The new baby. The day Aimee was taking care of the new baby while her mother got high.  That was the day Aimee snapped. Aimee the ten-year-old.

“What happened?” I ask.

Aimee and I are sitting on the steps of the school.  It is a perfect April day.  She looks out over the school yard, focusing on some middle space. She doesn’t say anything for a moment.  I realize she is replaying the memory in her head.  Her face is an expressionless mask. She is eleven, but she could just as well be fifty.

“I took a pair of scissors and held them to my throat.” Aimee makes a fist, and holds it to the hollow above her collarbone.  “I told her if she didn’t quit, I was going to kill myself.  Right here, like this, right now.”

We sit there, on the steps of the school, her story hanging before us. We give it a moment of silence. And then we let it go.

One day, the woman who calls herself my best friend phones.  It is late April, three months after the surgery, four months since I have seen or heard from her.

I should ask her why she hasn’t bothered to visit, where she has been, what kind of friend she thinks she is. I don’t.

She shows up a day or two later. Hands me a card.  Smiles as friends are supposed to smile.

“Open it.”

The card is a funny cartoon of a horse, or maybe it is a flower, or a sunny day. Maybe it is a Get Well card, a Best Friend card. I don’t remember.  I open the card, find inside it five slips of paper the size of grocery coupons.  Five white pieces of paper, black-inked words handwritten on each one: Horseback riding One Lesson.  I remember what little riding I have done.  I remember watching foxhunts, a neighbor’s gentle stallion, a small herd of black horses in a green meadow. Horses in memory like tiny specks of light in a dark sky.  I can almost touch them.  I think about riding a horse.  I think about the dull ache in my abdomen.  I am in no shape to ride, not yet.

I look at the woman, this friend, who has handed me this gift. “Thanks,” I say.  “I know exactly who to give this to.”

The next time I see Aimee, I give her the homemade coupons and she inspects them cautiously as if to determine whether in fact they are really real, or what she is supposed to do with them, or whether she will be allowed to do this at all.  I can see the questions, and answer the most practical one I can think of before she can ask it.

“I’ll drive you,” I say.

“Cool,” she says.

The next Saturday, I pick Aimee up at her grandmother’s house.  The house is small, with a single front window and a door; the whole house seems to be maybe thirty feet wide. The siding is a faded, peeling blue. A limp American flag hangs over the shallow front porch. I knock on the door and Aimee opens it.  In the few seconds it takes for her to turn and call “Bye Gramma” I get my first glimpse of Aimee’s world. In the living room, a small older woman sits slumped in the corner of a wide couch, a blur of cigarette smoke hovering in the air. A TV blares.  A dog yaps in the background. The room is dark, stuffy, almost airless.

“Let’s go,” Aimee says.  And she shuts the door.

We drive west, into the country.  The farm where the lessons are held belongs to a woman who teaches kids in 4-H, everything from leading a pony, to flatwork, to the basics of jumping.  Everyone, it seems, knows her.  There is a constant stream of parents dropping kids off, standing at the fence to watch kids ride, chatting with each other in the dirt parking lot, oblivious to the decay and chaos of the place. The farm has a herd of about two dozen horses, a few ponies, assorted mongrel dogs lounging about in the yard and the drive, litters of kittens scrambling in the hay loft, and one potbellied pig that wanders in and out of open stalls while the horses are in the pasture. The barn where the horses are kept might once have been a handsome building.  Now, it is swaybacked, paint faded to a dingy yellow, the stalls dark and sour smelling, the center aisle littered with pieces of tack, tools, riding equipment. There is a small riding arena inside the barn, and a larger one outside.  Everything is covered in the dust raised up by horses trotting in circles, inside and out of the barn, and the cars and trucks that come and go up and back the long dirt lane that leads from the road to the barn.

That first day, I watch while Aimee gets on a fat placid pony, is instructed on how to hold the reins, how to position her feet, her legs. And then she is riding.  Around and around the small dusty outdoor arena.  I still have a picture of her from that day.  Her blond hair is completely hidden underneath a black riding helmet a size too big. She is sitting on the pony the way new riders do — curled in on herself, her hands clutched high toward her chest, her knees gripping the pony’s back. Her whole body is a visible declaration that she is completely unsure what will happen next.  Yet.  Her usual carefully neutral face is completely different.  She is grinning.

That summer, I take Aimee back for a lesson every week.  I watch her ride around the dirt corral, as she learns to sit the pony, all three gaits.  The instructor gives the same lesson week after week: Walk, trot, canter; repeat and repeat. Heels down, shoulders back, head up.  A lesson is an hour long, a small space of time, just enough to forget the rest of the world.

Each week, after her lesson, Aimee and I go to a small family-owned drive-in, get two vanilla Cokes, then drive home talking, sipping the sweet cold drinks. The radio plays, sometimes Aimee sings along.  Sometimes, to her eye-rolling amusement, so do I.  Years later she will tell me how she remembers these days, how she told the man who would become her husband about driving to riding lessons, once a week, just the two of us. This is the heart of the story that is us, the lessons and the drive, there and back again.

One day, on the way home, when I stop at a red light, Aimee turns down the radio.  “You know what?”

“I don’t know, what?” I say back automatically, blithely.  I am prepared for nothing more than yet another eleven-year-old-style riddle.

“You would be a good mom,” Aimee says.

“Oh.” I don’t quite know what to say to this. “Well, thanks.”

I am doing the ordinary things a parent, mother or father, will do — driving her to riding lessons, buying us Cokes, talking about whatever we want to talk about.  The plain fact of me being there, being a normal adult, allows Aimee, for once, to be a kid.  I know that, am glad of it.

Yet, I harshly remind myself often that I am no mother. Not me. This is not something I want to talk about. Aimee, however, does.

“How come you don’t have any kids?” she asks.

The truth is, the truth has layers.  I don’t have kids because, by now, of course, I can’t. The hysterectomy. I don’t have kids, and I never tell her this, how I’d gotten pregnant by my husband and gave in to his wish to not have children. Just gave in. I don’t have kids from the years before that because my first husband and I had never gotten around to deciding yes or no, which became a good thing because just short of three years of that marriage I left him for the man I am with now. I don’t have kids because even before that, when I was barely twenty-something, I’d had a fling with a boy whose name I still remember but would rather not, and gotten pregnant then too and when I told him he showed up at the door of my apartment with a brand new hundred dollar bill which he handed to me, solemnly, and with great gravity.

“My half,” he’d said.

The light turns green.  I accelerate carefully. “I don’t have kids,” I say, without looking at Aimee, “Because I don’t, I guess.”That is a lame answer and we both know it. She presses on with the singular persistence of an adolescent.

“You should have kids.”

Her small, serious, pale face is turned toward me; I know this, even though I carefully keep looking straight ahead, driving down the road, hands at ten and two.

Really,” she says.

I relent. She might as well know at least a partial answer. So I explain the immediate circumstances.  Tumors, surgery, here I am. Aimee listens. When I am finished, she doesn’t say anything.  I glance at her.  She is frowning. Staring at the road ahead just as I was. Intent. It is as though she is translating my story into something that makes sense for her.

Finally she says, “So it’s like you’re spayed, right?”

This is a damn better metaphor than anything my expensive doctor came up with. “Well,” I say. “I guess so. Yes. Exactly like that.”

“I get it,” she says.  She bounces a little in her seat, then, almost involuntarily, then stops.  I feel her gaze on me. “So,” she says. “I guess I’m your kid then.”

We pass the sign marking the city limits. I consider this, the weight of it, the gift, and the mystery. “I guess you are,” I say.  “I guess you are.”

– Jean Harper’s writing has been supported by the Curtis Harnack Residency for Writers at Yaddo, the Goldfarb Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a residency at MacDowell, grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, and most recently a Prose Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which directly supported work on Still Life with Horses. Her first book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work (2005), won the Mid-List Press First Series Award in Nonfiction.